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|Also Known As:||Annette Joanne Funicello||Died:|
|Born:||October 22, 1942||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Utica, New York, USA||Profession:||Cast ... actor singer|
Before Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, there was Annette Funicello, the original Mouseketeer. When she burst out on the scene as the bubbly girl-next-door on "The Mickey Mouse Club" (ABC, 1955-59), America quickly fell in love with Funicello, making her one of the most recognized faces on television at that time. She was such a huge success on the show that by the end of the first season, the actress was receiving about 6,000 fan letters a week, a feat that astounded even Walt Disney himself. She re-emerged in the 1960s as a teen icon, starring in several "beach party" movies like "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965) opposite fellow idol Frankie Avalon, and would later inspire longtime fans with her courageous battle against the debilitating disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), which led to her death in April 2013. However, it was her warm, all-American persona as a Mouseketeer - her name famously embossed across her Disney sweater - that would be the Annette Funicello fans remembered best.
Annette Joanne Funicello was born on Oct. 22, 1942 in Utica, NY. Her parents, Joseph and Virginia Funicello, signed up their shy little girl - nicknamed "Dolly" by her father - for dance and music lessons to help overcome her bashfulness. When she was four, the Funicello family moved to Southern California, where the future "beach bunny" would make a name for herself. In 1955, Funicello performed the lead role in "Swan Lake" at a dance recital at the Burbank Starlight Bowl. In the audience was Walt Disney, who was searching for talented kids to appear on his new television show, "The Mickey Mouse Club." He was so impressed by her performance that he immediately cast her as the 24th Mouseketeer. In addition to performing sketches and dance routines, she starred in a number of the show's serials including 1956's "Adventure in Disneyland." In "Walt Disney Presents: Annette" (1958), Funicello's self-titled serial, she sang "How Will I Know My Love," the song that eventually launched her singing career. Due to the overwhelming response from her fans, Disney decided to release the song as a single and gave Funicello a recording contract.
Funicello remained under contract with Disney even after "The Mickey Mouse Club" ended in 1959. She appeared on the TV shows "Zorro" (ABC, 1957-59), "Make Room for Daddy" (ABC, 1953-57; CBS, 1957-1964), "Burke's Law" (ABC, 1963-66) and several others. In "Zorro," Funicello played Anita Cabrillo, a teenager who arrived in Los Angeles to visit a father who does not seem to exist at all. Rumors swirled that the role was a birthday present from Disney since the actress was such a huge fan of the show. She also co-starred in more Disney family movies, including "The Shaggy Dog" (1959), "Babes in Toyland" (1961), "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964) and "The Monkey's Uncle" (1965), among others.
In the early 1960s, after her Disney contract expired, Funicello tested the waters as a teen star. She starred opposite actor and singer teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon in summer romance films, which included "Beach Party" (1963), "Muscle Beach Party" (1964), "Bikini Beach" (1964), and the best known, "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965). The duo appeared in so many of these sun-'n'-fun movies that the two eventually became the poster couple for carefree summers spent on the ocean. When she was cast in her first movie, insiders said that Disney himself asked the young movie star to avoid wearing any attire that was too skimpy in an effort to maintain her "innocent Disney image." Funicello reportedly did not fully comply with the request; in her second beach movie, the young actress wore a two-piece fishnet suit and in the third, she wore a blue and white bikini that exposed her navel.
Despite her hectic schedule, Funicello found time for romance; even inspiring the 1960 song "Puppy Love" written by Paul Anka, whom she was briefly involved with. Due to her ability to sell a song, Funicello's recording career took off in the late 1950s and early 1960s, despite her reluctance at being considered a singer. Funicello recorded a total of 15 hit albums for Disney that contained pop songs such as "Tall Paul," "First Name Initial," "O Dio Mio," "Train of Love" and "Pineapple Princess." All songs made it to the Billboard Top 100. In 1994, Disney released a double-CD retrospective called Annette: A Musical Reunion with America's Girl Next Door.
Life onscreen seemed a fairytale for the wholesome actress, until the late 1980s when she first began noticing symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, an often-fatal neurological disorder which eventually renders one paralyzed in both speech and movement. She was in the middle of production of "Back to the Beach," a 1987 spoof of her earlier sand-and-surf films that reunited her with her co-star Avalon, when she began noticing muscular problems. She kept her condition a secret for many years, and in spite of her increasingly obvious symptoms, went on a yearlong concert tour with Avalon.
To combat rumors that her weakening state was due to alcohol abuse, the former Mouseketeer decided to go public with her illness in 1992; the same year she was inducted as a Disney Legend. She said of her decision, "When the stories about my MS came out, everyone gave me their love and their prayers. I'm human, and sometimes I can't help but ask, 'Why me?' But I believe everything happens for a reason, and I know now that my mission is to help others raise funds for MS. The more I read about MS, the more encouraged I am. When I wake up in the morning, I like to imagine, this is the day I'm going to hear about an MS cure on the news." In 1993, she created the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at the California Community Foundation.
After her announcement, Funicello stayed mostly out of the limelight, but continued to make news as a spokesperson for MS. As an ambassador for the Society's "Walk for MS" event in 2002, she formed "Annie's Angels," teams who raised awareness of the challenges of the disease. Her 1994 autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story, was turned into a made-for-TV-movie, "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story" (1995). In the movie's final scene, actress Eva La Rue as Funicello was seen riding in a wheelchair with her back turned away from the camera. She faced a group of children, delivering a message of hope. In the mid-1990s, she also produced her own line of teddy bears for the Annette Funicello Collectible Bear Company. The last collection was made in 2004 when it was rumored Funicello was getting too ill for her beloved activism. After years of bravely fighting against MS, Funicello died on April 8, 2013, leaving behind an impressive legacy of sunny optimism both on and off the screen.
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